Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Torrance: Dualism and Natural Theology, pt 2

As well as rejecting the idea of a logical bridge between God and the world on epistemological grounds (see previous post), Torrance asserts that the medieval analogy of being (analogia entis) between the creation and the Creator is precluded by the Christian doctrine of creation ex nihilo. "The Christian doctrine of Creation asserts that God in his transcendent freedom made the universe out of nothing, and that in giving it a reality distinct from His own but dependent upon it He endowed the universe with an immanent rationality making it determinate and knowable" (Torrance, 1969b:59).

For Torrance, a fundamental aspect of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo is the "contingent" nature of the creation; that is, the universe is wholly dependent upon God for its origin, existence, and order. Because the existence of the universe is solely the product of the will of God, it is neither logically necessary nor self-sustaining. As created out of nothing, the universe is entirely dependent on God for its ongoing existence; it is not self-sufficient, yet it has its own created integrity and independence that must be respected (Torrance, 1981a:vii, viii). Thus, a contingent universe would not contain within itself a self-explanatory logic as to why it came into existence or why it should continue to exist (Achtemeier, 2001:276).

The creaturely (i.e., "created") integrity of the universe precludes the possibility of a direct movement of thought from knowledge of the creation to knowledge of the Creator (as in natural theology). As Torrance (1994:46) argues:

Since the universe has been given a reality of its own which, while contingent upon God, is utterly different from him, it cannot be known through a priori reasoning but may be known only out of itself, as it discloses its own nature to us in answer to experimental or physical interrogations.

The creation's lack of self-sufficiency means the universe will point toward some transcendent ground beyond itself, but any a priori thought or direct, deductive movement of thought from the effects of the created order to the nature or being of God is ruled out because the order of the universe is not a logically necessary emanation from the divine nature. Torrance characteristically makes this point by saying there is no logical bridge for moving between the created order and God (Torrance, 1980:53-56; Achtemeier, 2001:276).

In arguing that there is no "logical bridge" between the creation and its Creator, Torrance is refuting the supposed emanational continuity of the divine and materiality necessitated by the radical cosmological dualism of ancient Greek thought (see my post, "The Wedding Cake Cosmos: Augustine and NeoPlatonism," 2/09). As Torrance (1981a:21) notes, the universe has conferred upon it a created rationality derived from (not participating in) the uncreated rationality of God, yet transcendentally (not ontologically) grounded in it. Because the world is created by God out of nothing, rather than arising through some form of Neo-platonic emanationism, there is no intrinsic connection between God and creation. In other words, there is no causal connection between God and the world (as in Aquinas); rather, there is a contingent relationship between God and the world he creates ex nihilo in an act of sovereign freedom. Since God does not create the world out of himself, an independent natural theology is a form of "mythology," for it lacks a 'realist' foundation in any kind of intrinsic ontological and epistemological relation to God on which knowledge of God can be based (Colyer, 2001a:130, 196 n. 194).

Comment: Remember that in a scientific approach to theology, realties are known solely in accordance with the nature of that reality as it unfolds in the process of investigation. Thus, to know God through Jesus is a scientifically theological approach to knowledge of God, for Jesus is "of one nature with the Father" (homoousios to Patri). The creation, however, is not "of one nature with God"; rather, it is external to God. In plain speak, the creation is not made of "God-stuff," regardless of what the neopantheists of New Age thought may say. Thus, to inquire into knowledge of God based on the creation is a form of "mythology," derived from human thought, rather than "theology," derived from God's self-revelation in the incarnate Son.

The lack of an ontological connection between the Creator and the creation raises issues of methodology. In regard to scientific methodology, Torrance questions any natural theology that operates as an independent movement of thought based upon an "external" relationship between the Creator and the creation. Like any science, theology develops its epistemology and methodology not independent of, or antecedent to, its subject matter, but in conformity to the understanding of its subject matter gained in the process of investigation. A rigorous scientific theological method, therefore, will not allow a bifurcation between an a priori epistemological structure and empirical content. As Torrance rightly notes, when an independent natural theology is employed as a "preamble to faith" (praeambula fidei), that is, as an independent conceptual system detached from the material content of our actual knowledge of God, it opens the way for revealed theology to be interpreted within the framework of its presuppositions, so that God's triune self-revelation is "domesticated," "distorted," and "misinterpreted" by the antecedent conceptual system imposed upon it (Torrance, 1982:32, 33; 1984:281; 1988a:52; 1990:130, 154). This is precisely what occurred with the medieval habit of developing first a treatise on the one God (De Deo Uno) derived from natural theology followed by a relatively minor treatise on the Trinity (De Deo Trino) derived from revealed theology. In medieval Scholasticism, this led to the relegation of the doctrine of the Trinity to nothing more than an "appendix" to a more thoroughly developed doctrine of the one God, thereby splitting the fundamental concept of God and creating the "schizoid state of affairs" (i.e., epistemological dualism) characteristic of Western theism (Torrance, 1980:147, 148; 1996a:8-10; cf. Rahner, 1997:16-18). (For a review, see my post, "Tommy A. and the Western Split," 3/09.)

To support his criticism of the autonomous nature of natural theology and, hence, its consequent lack of validity in developing accurate knowledge of God, Torrance frequently points to Euclidian geometry as an example of a deductive science developed as an abstract conceptual system independently of the empirical realities it was purported to describe. In terms of Newtonian mechanics, Euclidian geometry was useful in advancing knowledge of bodies in motion; nevertheless, it was an idealized conceptual system developed independently of experience. Einstein questioned the validity of trying to force physics into the rigid framework of a conceptual system developed independently and antecedently to the science of physics and detached from actual experience. He showed that the idealized framework of Euclidian geometry did not conform to the actual character of nature as disclosed by modern physics (e.g., electromagnetic fields, the behaviour of light and radiation). Einstein argued that what had happened, and had to happen, was that geometry was transformed by actual knowledge of physical reality. Similarly, Torrance argues that rigorous scientific methodology in theology cannot allow itself to be controlled by an independent epistemology or antecedent conceptual system (as in an independent natural theology), but must be developed in light of God's self-revelation and self-communication in Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1970:129; 1984:281; 1985:39; 1990:130; Colyer, 2001a133, n. 26; 198, 199; cf. Tarnas, 1991:356). As Torrance (1990:130) argues:

What was at stake in both instances [i.e., Einstein's rejection of Euclidean geometry and Barth's rejection of natural theology] was the demand of faithful scientific method, in accordance with which we must allow all unwarranted presuppositions and every preconceived framework to be called in question by what is actually disclosed in the course of on-going inquiry, and the need to develop an epistemological structure that is indissolubly bound up with the essential substance or positive content of knowledge.

Comment: Torrance often refers to Einstein's repudiation of Euclidean geometry as an "idealized" conceptual system that did NOT fit the reality it was intended to describe. Euclidean geometry was used as a mathematical framework for the Newtonian-Deist view of the cosmos governed solely by the immutable laws of cause and effect. Einstein showed that the Euclidean framework did not fit the cosmos as it is. It was merely an "idealized" conceptual system developed prior to and apart from actual empirical investigation of the universe.

This is analogous to the problem of natural theology. It is an idealized, a priori conceptual system that does not fit the reality it intends to investigate. As the Bible and, especially the incarnation have shown us, God is not the immutable, impassible deity of classical theism developed by natural theology rooted in Aristotelian (pagan) metaphysics but is the self-emptying, self-abnegating, stooping God of the manger and the cross.

Hence, there is a "formidable scientific character" to the rejection of natural theology, for no genuinely scientific theology can allow itself to be controlled by a logical structure that is independent of the object of inquiry. The rejection of natural theology parallels the rejection of any "deistic disjunction" between God and the world of nature and history. In place of dualism, the ontic and noetic structures arising from our interaction with the self-revealing God are imposed upon us and grounded in the rationality of God himself (Torrance, 1970:129, 130). As Torrance (1988a:50) argues:

When we think and speak of God from the perspective of the Creator/creature relation . . . we can only think and speak of him in vague, general and negative terms [e.g., infinite, immutable, impassible], at the infinite distance of the creature from the Creator where we cannot know God as he is in himself or in accordance with his divine nature [as we do in Jesus], but only in his absolute separation from us, as the eternal, unconditioned and indescribable. In such an approach we can do no more than attempt to speak of God from his works which have come into being at his will through his Word, that is, from what is externally related to God, and which as such do not really tell us anything about who God is or what he is like in his own nature.

As stated previously, scientific theological inquiry must proceed in accordance with the nature of the object of inquiry. This is especially important in regard to the knowledge of God. Since there is no intrinsic "likeness" or ontological continuity between the being of God and the being of the created order, but only an "external" relationship, God cannot be known in a godly and accurate way through independent natural theology arising from the Creator-creation relationship (cf. Torrance, 1988a:52).

This is not to suggest, however, that Torrance finds no place for natural theology. Rather, natural theology finds it proper place in the overlap between theological and natural science, both of which operate within the same rational structures of space and time and have in common the inherent rationality of the universe (Molnar, 1997:291). The problem Torrance sees in natural theology is its independent character, wherein it seeks to develop an autonomous rational structure grounded in the natural world alone apart from God's concrete self-disclosure as mediated by the incarnate Son. In other words, the understanding of God generated by natural theology is an abstraction that falls far short of the trinitarian God revealed in Jesus Christ, one that misses the mark of God's triune reality as revealed on the ground of our knowledge of God through Jesus Christ (Torrance, 1970:128; 1980:90, 91; Colyer, 2001a:131).

Torrance (1980:91) does not deny the need for a proper rational structure in knowledge of God, such as that natural theology attempts to achieve. Yet he insists that the rational structure be bound up with the actual content of the knowledge of God, or else it becomes a "distorting abstraction." Thus:

[Natural theology must] be included within revealed theology, where we have to do with actual knowledge of God as it is grounded in the intelligible relations in God himself, for it is there under the compulsion of God's self-disclosure in Being and Act that the rational structure appropriate to him arises in our understanding of him. But in the nature of the case it is not a rational structure that can be abstracted from the actual knowledge of God with which it is integrated, and made to stand on its own as an independent or autonomous system of thought, for then it would be meaningless, like something that is complete in itself but without any ontological reference beyond itself: it becomes merely a game to be enjoyed like chess.

The rational structure that natural theology seeks to erect can be developed within the understanding of faith as we inquire into the objective reality of God's self-disclosure. As Torrance (1990:148) argues:

[W]ith the rejection of an independently thought-out epistemology [as in natural theology], on the ground that method and subject-matter are inherently connected, natural theology can no longer be pursued in its old abstractive form, as a prior conceptual system on its own, but must be brought within the body of positive theology and be pursued in indissoluble unity with it.

Natural theology must be included in, and subsumed under, revealed theology, for the reality of God's self-revelation includes the truth of divine creation. Thus, "while knowledge of God is grounded in his own intelligible revelation to us, it requires for its actualization an appropriate rational structure in our cognizing of it, but that rational structure does not arise within us unless we allow our minds to fall under the compulsion of God's being who he really is in the act of his self-revelation and grace, and as such cannot be derived from an analysis of our autonomous subjectivity" (Torrance, 1970:128, 129; cf. Molnar, 1997:293).

In its attempt to build an epistemological Tower of Babel between earth and heaven, natural theology falls short in the following specific ways: it ignores the Patristic assertion that only through God can God be known; it is undermined by the epistemological significance of sola gratia and the contingent nature of creation; it runs counter to the methodology of scientific theology, wherein realities are investigated according to their natures, and it wrongly subverts the realist principle of scientific theology wherein epistemology follows ontology.


Colyer, E.M. 2001a. How to Read T.F. Torrance: Understanding His Trinitarian & Scientific Theology. Downers Grove, IL: IVP. 393pp.

Molnar, P.D. 1997. God's Self-Communication in Christ: A Comparison of Thomas F. Torrance and Karl Rahner. Scottish Journal of Theology, 50, pp. 288-320.

Rahner, K. 1997. The Trinity: Introduction, Index, and Glossary by Catherine Mowry LaCugna. New York, NY: Crossroads. 122pp.

Tarnas, R. 1991. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York, NY: Ballantine. 544pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1969b. Space, Time and Incarnation. London: OUP. 92pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1970. The Problem of Natural Theology in the Thought of Karl Barth. Religious Studies, vol 6, pp. 121-135.

Torrance, T.F. 1980. The Ground and Grammar of Theology: Consonance Between Theology and Science. (Preface to new edition by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1981a. Divine and Contingent Order. (Preface to new edition, 1998). Edinburgh: T & T Clark. 162pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1982. Reality and Evangelical Theology: The Realism of Christian Revelation. (Forward by K.A. Richardson, 1999). Downers Grove, IL: IVP. Philadelphia, PA: Westminster. 174pp.

Torrance, T. F. 1984. Transformation & Convergence in the Frame of Knowledge: Explorations in the Interrelations of Scientific and Theological Enterprise. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 353pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1985. Reality and Scientific Theology. (New Forward by T.F. Torrance, 2001). Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers. 220pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1988a. The Trinitarian Faith: The Evangelical Theology of the Ancient Catholic Church. London: T & T Clark. 345pp.

Torrance, T. F. 1990. Karl Barth: Biblical & Evangelical Theologian. Edin: T & T CLark. 256pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1994. Preaching Christ Today: The Gospel and Scientific Thinking. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 71pp.

Torrance, T.F. 1996a. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons. London: T & T Clark. 260pp.


  1. Thanks again for a great study. It's okay for us to see the fine tunings of his work in creation but should start with Him and his revealing himself to us. He made the creation out of nothing and the creation is contingent on him, but the creation is not made by part of God. Only god is eternal. I feel much closer to God. Ron

  2. Question: How do compare this study with what is articulated in the letter to the church in Rome: "Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God."?

    I am curious as to how one can maintain this theological position offered by Barth/Torrance in light with Paul's words.

    Thanks for your service to the Church, brother! :-)

  3. Hi Joseph,

    I hope to address this in the next post. For now, I will say this: Barth had NO place for natural theology; Torrance, on the other hand, subsumes it under revealed theology. For Torrance it is not a matter of possibility but a matter of priority.

    More later.

  4. Thanks, Martin! Will be looking forward to your next piece.

  5. Dear Martin:

    I am always fascinated & delighted wt the awesome scientific 'discoveries' & readings, that keep adding glory 2 Our Great GOD, & I can see how no human can 'deny' His Existence, Intelligence & Power, but now, I realize they never got me closser 2 Jesus (GOD Himself), so Intimately as This (Your & Our) Christ-Centered Theology!!!

    Thanks, so much, 4 allowing Jesus 2 Unveil the Personal-Loving God 2 @ of Us!!!

    In His Embrace,
    Deÿ López/MX


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